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December 04, 2016
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Wild vs. Stocked Trout: There’s a difference

Theo May holds a nice Delaware wild brown trout. Notice the large healthy fins on the wild fish.
Photo by Jeff White

Why cement? Because stocked fish are born and raised in cement troughs on a diet of Purina Trout Chow (yes, it is a thing) among dozens if not hundreds of their brood-mates. The proximity to their brethren works contrary to nature where adult wild trout are solitary, claiming and defending the best feeding lanes in a given stretch of water. Instead, once these fish are released they tend to group up as they had been at the hatchery, creating pockets and pools filled with very confused fish.

These muddled fish are also unaccustomed to the varied and different type of water they find themselves in, having been in a static environment for years. They also lack the muscle tone and innate knowledge of currents that wild fish do. This leads to one of the biggest differences between the two—the fight. Anglers are always looking to challenge themselves and land the strongest, hardest fighting opponent that they can. A wild trout fits this bill perfectly, while the stocked fish many times just gives up and rolls over, coming right to hand. While this may be less work-intensive, it is definitely not desirable to most fishermen.

Stocked fish are also not selective in their feeding habits, meaning that any fly or other imitation will likely fool them. This is again a result of their diet and previous life in the tank. They are unaware of what item floating on the surface may or may not be food, and therefore have to attack every piece of detritus that floats over their heads, including sticks, seeds, etc. This is also the reason that a cigarette-butt fly was developed (only half in jest) as these fish are known to take them.

Wild fish tend to become highly selective in their feeding habits, and this makes them exponentially more difficult to fool with an imitation. While this may sound counterintuitive (i.e. why would one want the fish to be more difficult to catch?), the truth is that fly fishermen in particular take a queer joy in targeting extremely wary and difficult fish, takingpleasure in fooling such difficult quarry.

Despite their hard fighting nature, beautiful coloration and challenging nature, there is something that draws fishermen to these wild fish that runs even deeper. It is an existential desire, a primal feeling that comes from challenging oneself against a native adversary that has the true home-field advantage and that can trace their genetic line in that body of water for generations. This is a desire that one can fortunately fulfill nearby, in the beautiful, cold waters of the Delaware River.

[Bart Larmouth is a Delaware River fishing guide.]